The Malta Independent 18 August 2017, Friday

Wain’s cant

Sunday, 13 August 2017, 09:17 Last update: about 5 days ago

In his reaction to an earlier piece of mine, Kenneth Wain called me ‘ignorant’ and some other nice adjectives because I dared voice my disagreement with one part of the Ethics programme (‘The Ethics programme in our schools as it truly is’, TMIS, 6 August).

Essentially, Kenneth Wain’s hysterical reaction was useless because it did not address the issue I raised. Anyway, I shall respond to his reaction by looking first at its form and then at its content.


The Form

The fact that a university professor feels the need to resort to browbeating to answer criticism, thereby attacking the person rather than the argument, demonstrates (i) that he has no real counterargument and (ii), as has been pointed out by numerous authors abroad, neo-liberals tend to be dogmatic and try to intimidate all those who disagree with them into submission. Jonah Goldberg aptly captured this attitude in the title of his bestseller Liberal Fascism. The true liberal is also liberal with those who disagree with him... the famous phrase attributed to Voltaire is the standard retort in these circumstances.


The Content

1.    Kant’s pessimism

Kenneth Wain accuses me of ignorance because, he wrote, I claimed that Kant was a pessimist. No, dear Professor, I never claimed that Kant was a pessimist. What I said – and please either read properly or else quote honestly – was that Kant’s world-view is pessimistic.

And actually, it is not my idea. I was simply referring to a number of philosophers who criticised Kant for his moral pessimism.

For the philosopher Eduard von Hartmann, Kant was an ‘eudemonistic pessimist’ (i.e., someone who held that it is not possible to achieve happiness in this life). He even called him the ‘Father of Pessimism’ (Vater des Pessimismus).

Hegel explicitly charged Kant with pessimism in Faith and Knowledge. Is Kenneth Wain angry with me because, whereas Hegel and Kant are both followers of Rousseau, I prefer the conservative Hegel to the liberal Kant?

2.    The issue I raised

The main thrust of my argument was that, because they are still too young, fifth-formers should not be introduced to a discussion on life-and-death matters which are currently penalised by the Criminal Code.

In other words, I argued, teenagers should not be invited to discuss, in a context legitimised by ‘authority’, whether the current provisions of the Criminal Code with regard to abortion are to be obeyed or not.

This is not done directly, but indirectly, making the whole set-up even more socially dangerous. Because it goes without saying that during such ‘neutral’ discussions there will be students who spontaneously conclude that the foetus’ life ultimately depends on the mother’s will.

The course will therefore insinuate the idea into the minds of young people that certain humans fall into the category of contested humans.

Let me put it differently.

If students were to be invited to discuss ‘responsibly’ whether Roma people should be removed from society or not, all decent people would (unlike what happened in the 1930s) raise their collective voice and protest, because even the discussion itself places Roma people in the contested humans category. Even though the teacher would not explicitly endorse any view, the very fact that the issue is opened for discussion in the formal context of a classroom indirectly raises doubts as to the humanity of Roma people. If the case were clear-cut and free of doubts, there wouldn’t be the discussion in the first place.

The same clearly applies to the human foetus. The mere fact of inviting 15- or 16-year-olds to discuss whether the termination of the life of a human being in the foetal stage is morally acceptable or not, places the foetus, implicitly and indirectly, in the contested human category.

I am not trying to make any statement about the law and the foetus, or even about the notion of personhood.

My point is that the law penalises abortion, and even a supposedly neutral discussion opens the door to the possibility of contemplating breaking the law. When the teacher takes a neutral stand, she indirectly proposes both sides of the debate as equally valid. So the point becomes: how can you present breaking the obtaining law as a valid side in a debate among teenagers? If Kenneth Wain can’t see the point, it does not mean that the point is not there. It simply means that Kenneth Wain can’t see it.

In his book What is a Human? published last year by Oxford University Press, Professor John H. Evans demonstrates that even the mere talking about issues has an effect on policy and law. I think Kenneth Wain should read this book.

3.    ‘Dare to know’... but not ‘Dare to experience’

Yes, as Kenneth Wain pointed out in his reaction, Kant did believe in ‘dare to know’. But I do not think he ever exhorted, explicitly or implicitly, to ‘dare to experience’. (I obviously stand to be corrected.)

Christianity too invites its followers to dare to know. “Be wise as serpents”, one finds in Matthew. But the exhortation continues: “and be innocent as doves”. Therefore do dare to know (serpents), but do not dare to experience (doves). On this point alone, Christianity wins hands down.

What I am more concerned about is this claim made by Kenneth Wain: “The last module, in Form 5,” he wrote, “moves seamlessly into ‘Life and Death issues’. These are particularly sensitive and controversial, but which the students will certainly have already encountered in their lives and possibly experienced, and which they are now mature enough to consider and discuss responsibly with their teachers.”

Actually, I am not just concerned. I am shocked! By ‘Life and Death issues’, Professor Wain means abortion and euthanasia. If what he is saying is true – namely, that teenage students will have already encountered abortion and euthanasia in their lives and possibly experienced them – then this is the strongest indictment of the Police Corps I’ve read in ages.

If in a country where abortion and assisted suicide are criminal offences, a university professor can placidly affirm that the vast majority of students have already encountered or even ‘possibly experienced’ either, then we are really facing a complete meltdown of the rule of law.

Are abortion and assisted suicide so rampant in Malta that a university professor can argue that it’s fine for 16-year-old students to discuss them because, after all is said and done, they ‘certainly have already encountered [them] in their lives’?

Most probably this was a slip of the pen on Wain’s side, carried away as he was barraging me with abuse and insults.

Still, does Wain seriously believe that teenagers are ‘mature enough to consider and discuss responsibly’ abortion and euthanasia? I wouldn’t be surprised if Wain also thinks that it’s fine to eat marijuana cakes during the lunch break preceding the Ethics class... but let me stop, because I’m getting this seemingly uncontrollable urge to reciprocate the compliments Wain directed at me, and I promised myself I would resist that particular temptation.

At least, in religion classes adolescents are taught that humans are ‘mysteriously’ different from other creatures, because they are created in the ‘image of God’. Even an atheist can see that it is wiser to teach this world-view, than to invite half-children half-adults to enter an explosives warehouse carrying a lit torch. Little does it matter if the torch is the symbol of enlightenment, it can still blow everything up.

Essentially, adolescents are still minors, and are not yet ready to emerge from minority because it is not self-incurred, Professor Wain: it’s nature. Give time to time; don’t rush; when the time is ripe, they’ll emerge from their minority. But in Form V, they still need direction.

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